Caribbean Dream: Is cruising really all it's cracked up to be?
Leslie Ann Horgan finds her sea legs on the floating resort that is Allure of the Seas
It's hard to tell which gave me the bigger thrill: waving down at the tiny beachgoers as we glided out of Fort Lauderdale and into the open sea, or walking through the Windjammer buffet for the first time and salivating at the Wonka-worthy array of food there for the taking.
Or perhaps it was sinking into a bubbling Jacuzzi overhanging the waves: a hollowed-out pineapple full of piña colada in my hand. Or maybe it was getting a hole-in-one on the mini-golf course, 16 storeys up in the middle of the ocean. Then again, the biggest kick might have been pulling back the curtains to reveal an idyll of turquoise water, azure sky, white sand, green palms and terracotta roofs below…
All of these things - and countless more during a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise onboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas - caused me to bubble up with the kind of excitement I haven't felt since I was a kid. My debut cruise was not the quaint, sedate, old-age holiday I was expecting, but rather a giddy return to childlike abandon in the best playground imaginable.
At the beginning, there were more nerves then excitement as myself and my boyfriend made our way towards this imposing, Oasis-class ship. Allure stands 236ft above the waterline and carries up to 6,300 passengers and 2,300 crew. A storm over JFK airport had made our journey to this point hellish - and so, sleep-deprived, dizzy and blinded by the intense Florida sun, we painstakingly made our way through the security checks. Stepping inside, we found ourselves on the Royal Promenade, and in another world.
The main thoroughfare of the ship, the Royal Promenade is a huge space filled with shops and cafés that feels for all the world like an American mall. It's just one of what I came to think of as distinct 'environments' on the ship. Others include the retro Boardwalk (complete with full-sized carousel and fairground mirrors), the huge pool deck (with brightly coloured kids' area, saltwater and chlorinated pools, whirlpools and bars), the below-decks entertainment district (with nightclub, casino and jazz bar) and the incredible Central Park (with verdant borders and piped-in birdsong that really would make you forget you are on a ship).
And that's before you get to subsections such as the 1,400-seater theatre, children's and teen zones, climbing walls, zip line, surf machines, ice rink, spa and outdoor cinema… It's not so much a ship as a floating resort - and an explorer's paradise.
After gathering ourselves in our stateroom - an airy cabin with double bed, couch and coffee table, and balcony overlooking the hypnotic sea view - we ventured out to the pool deck. The other passengers, many in large, multi-generational family groups or gangs of college students in matching T-shirts, already seemed to know their way around. I'd heard that cruises were addictive, and certainly it seemed like the vast majority of passengers were repeat customers.
A chance turn to the left was a lucky one as we found ourselves in the adults- only solarium in the prow of the ship. Under the sweeping arcs of glass, separated to allow a delicious breeze flow through, we claimed two sunbeds, grabbed two beers and then deposited ourselves in a Jacuzzi… And there we happily stayed for the majority of our time onboard.
Our first three days were spent at sea. The fact that we were moving, and had booked onshore excursions along the way including an island tour, rainforest hike and snorkelling (the latter at Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private port on the northern coast of Haiti), relieved me of the pressing guilt I usually feel on holiday to do or see something. During those long, lazy days onboard, we took it easy. When the sun went down, we threw ourselves into activities - I sank that winning putt on the mini-golf course somewhere around midnight.
At any time of day or night, a printed timetable called the Cruise Compass delivered to your room lets you know what's happening in every area of the ship, from belly-flop competitions to karaoke and scrapbooking workshops. Some of the highlights for me were a rowdy adults' scavenger hunt, the 1970s theme night and seeing the stage musical Mamma Mia!. One evening after dinner, we simply sat in our cabin and watched a spectacular electrical storm outside. The rain lashed against our balcony doors, but inside all was calm and so steady that a pen wouldn't have rolled.
Travelling on Allure of the Seas provides many 'wow' moments, but for me the best thing about the cruise experience was being able to let go. I don't mean that in a drunken sense, but rather being unshackled from the need to plan ahead.
When you're hungry, there's food. When you want to be entertained, choose from the endless list of activities. If you're not enjoying something, simply pick up your drink and wander off elsewhere. There are few pressures and no responsibility.
For many passengers travelling from Europe, the cost of a Caribbean cruise will make it a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. Now that I've experienced it, I'd say that feeling like a kid again for a week is worth any amount of money.
What to pack
Your ballgown. For the Captain's reception and other nominated formal evenings, we were surprised to see tuxes, floor-length gowns and even a wedding dress or two on display. Dressing up is optional, but a jacket and tie is required for dining rooms on formal evenings... excluding the buffet, of course.
Into the Drink
You can eat all meals for free on Royal Caribbean (speciality restaurants incur an extra charge), but drinks beyond water, teabags, filter coffee and unbranded lemonade must be paid for.
Drinks packages can be bought as an add-on. After agonising over the cost, we decided on a ‘Deluxe Beverage’ package that entitled us to bottled water, soft drinks, speciality coffees and all alcoholic drinks (with a few restrictions or supplements) for the week. Once a surprising — and mandatory — 18pc tips fee was included, that brought the cost to £331 (€370) per person.
Not only that, I was dismayed to find that with every drink you order comes a paper slip to which you can add another tip. You’re not obliged to do this, of course, but we felt that the bar staff were slower to serve us again if we didn’t.
How to do it
Leslie Ann travelled with Royal Caribbean. A seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Allure of the Seas costs from €897pp based on two sharing, including meals and most activities — but not flights, drinks or excursions. For more, visit royalcaribbean.ie or call 0844 493 4005 or your travel agent.